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To improve your program, change your habits

Mark-Haugen.jpgMuch of our everyday life is done by habit. In 2006 a Duke researcher found that more than 40% of our everyday actions are habits, not decisions. How can we use knowledge about our work habits to make programs and organizations better?

We are what we do. Our programs are what we as leaders do. A habit is fairly easy to understand with a few minutes of reflection; we all have them! I challenge you, the champions of youth programs; use your habits to make your program better.

hopscotch-board.jpgYouth programs throughout Minnesota have champions that strive to provide high-quality experiences for our learners. We are succeeding and we also have room to become better. Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit, said, "Champions don't do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking...They follow the habits they've learned."

Duhigg's description of how a habit works is a great place to start learning about their power. Maintaining a habit is easy (especially the bad ones), but changing a habit or creating a new one can be hard. A habit begins with a trigger that causes an action. The action is our routine, our automatic way of doing something. We recognize the trigger and complete the action because of the final component; the reward.

Mark Twain suggested that a habit "... should be coaxed downstairs a step at a time." If you want to be a champion you can use the following strategies to make your program better. When you identify a few items that you want to change remember to focus only on one or two at a time. Small intentional changes will help your program mature to the highest quality possible.

Remember that changing a habit is easier than quitting one!

Before you set out to develop new habits or quit old ones, reflect on the habits you currently have. Can you adapt any of your habits to result in an improved program? It is much easier to use the same trigger and reward while changing only a routine.
  • Do you want to increase the use of reflective questions in a youth program? It's easier to incorporate this if your group gathers together at some regular time in your program. When your group is together, ask a few reflective questions. Make that your routine!

Invite an outsider to take a look at your program

We often fail to notice our own everyday actions, so invite someone to observe and share their observations. The University of Minnesota provides a deeper review using the Youth Program Quality Assessment tool. You too can use the process. For deeper information, check out the Weikert Center. The process we use to assess, plan and improve is valuable!
  • Informal observations: I know it can be awkward to hear about things that need to be improved. It can also be affirming to hear about your program's strengths! At times we need to remind ourselves that we don't know what we don't know. Ask your learners, their parents or others connected to your program to share their thoughts. Ask for specifics.
  • Formal observations: The YPQA provides a clear process, supports and specific examples of how safe environments, supportive environments, interaction and engagement can be improved in your program. This proven tool will help identify points where you can develop your strengths further or address an area where you would like to improve.
Do you have a habit you want to change? How could changing only a routine of one of your other habits help you improve your program?

I challenge you to reflect, plan and share one strategy of how you can use habits to improve your program. Bonus points go to all of you who can tell a story of how they have done this already!

-- Mark Haugen, Extension educator, regional 4-H youth development programs

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Hello Mark,
    Thank you so much for posting this blog! Yes we all have good and bad habits and it is beneficial to have an objective party assess us and help us to recognize our good habits and coach us to change our bad habits when it comes to youth programming.
    As you mention in your blog, the YPQA from Weikert is a great research based assessment tool. We use this extensively in 4-H to increase the quality of our youth programming.
    Assessment does not have to be threatening or scary--it can be an encouraging conversation about what the strengths and areas for improvement are in a program. Most youth workers and volunteers welcome constructive feedback that will hep them improve the experience for young people.

  2. Great point to bring up "inviting observation"! This is part of individual and organizational excellence! We can learn some key points about HOW we can share observations with others so they do not spur a defensiveness. By encouraging a safe and constructive dialogue and interchange about the observation, we gain much more perspective and buy in for considering how things could be done differently! For a safe and constructive dialogue there needs to be a level of trust and active listening. One of my favorite parts of how we can support a constructive dialogue is to ask "divergent questions" which means open ended questions so that the feedback is not just a statement or a judgement, but a conversation. Thanks for your great post!

  3. I appreciate the notion that changing a habit is easier than quitting/starting one. That makes me think of the YPQA observations and coaching we do with youth groups. Helping a group focus on changing or adjusting just one or two things in their environment can make big differences in the program quality, and yet not be overwhelming to implement.

  4. Ann,
    I agree, assessment doesn't have to be scary, though like many habits it can feel a bit uncomfortable at first.
    Do you have any stories from your work where you have seen habits change through the process? I believe that learning from others experiences can make it easier to see the impact of the little things we do...

  5. Margo,
    Thanks for the response.
    I'm interested in hearing you speak a bit more about "divergent questions". Do you have an example of one or two questions we could ask others to gain their insight?
    How have you used the insights to help change, create or quit a habit?

  6. Becky,
    I am a firm believer that it is easier to adapt a habit. At one point It seemed like programs that I would lead would go WAY too long where we would have to cut out some of the activities. A simple change of my routine where I added a clear timeline to the program plan. solved the issue!
    I also believe that when making changes it can be nice to start out with one or two simple changes. Do you agree? Would you recommend the first changes be little victories?

  7. Sure I can share an example. I recently took a 4-H club through the assessment and discovery meeting process using the YPQA. One of the items I coached them on was to set up their meeting space differently. They had adults and youth sitting together on tables that were distant from the officers table. Youth were not engaging much in the discussion, but the adults were very vocal at the meetings. I suggested that they arrange the benches in a "u" shape closer to the officers table . I also suggested that the adults sit in the back and let the youth fill in the front benches. The result was that the youth were more engaged in the meeting activities and discussion and the adults did more listening and offered their opinions and ideas less frequently.
    With just one observation the dynamics of their program shifted to engage youth more. Now it is a "habit" to set up their meeting that way!

  8. Edgar Rice Burroughs states...“We are, all of us, creatures of habit, and when the seeming necessity for schooling ourselves in new ways ceases to exist, we fall naturally and easily into the manner and customs which long usage has implanted ineradicable within us.”
    I myself have fallen into the same habits in my job from year to year working as a program coordinator and much of this is due to leaders being happy with how programs have run and seeing no necessary need to change. However, without making any change are we staying stagnant and not moving forward and taking advantage of some of the new and exciting opportunities that could be out there.
    Recently I have had the opportunity to move into a new role as a program coordinator in a new county and by taking on a new position in a county that has operated the same for many years I was able to break some of their habits along with some of my own old habits and create some leaner ways of thinking to improve the program quality.

  9. Ann,
    Great example! The only aspect of the routine that changed was moving the is amazing how a small change can cause a ripple effect.

  10. Mark, I think it's easier to "eat the elephant one bite at a time," so am in agreement to start with one or two small victories. I've seen clubs make small adaptations, then be ready for other changes that may require more deliberate planning to implement. This also speaks to Margo's earlier point about trust. If clubs can see those quick wins, they're more lucky to trust the process and trust the coach.
    Small victories can very from program to program, depending on their habits. When I coach 4-H clubs I like to look and listen when the youth and adults are talking about their program - both the strengths and challenges. In my experience, they're more like to have success in places I see and hear their energy.

  11. There are a lot of thoughts given to habits and breaking habits. When I brush my teeth every morning (and night as well!), I do not think about the health and well-being of my mouth, I think that it is something I have to do before I head out the door and before I hit the pillow (or after garlic bread), breaking the action down and reflecting is very important and I like how you speak to it.
    I see myself starting to speak the language of quality programming and focusing on reaching the top of the pyramid and as I plan programs, facilitate events, see that it is becoming naturally infused in my programming. So, my habit is reaching the top of the pyramid and trying to do so consistently.
    Thank you for a refreshing blog...

  12. I too have experienced the change that “one small victory” creates. In working with a group of youth workers and discussing our quality journey, one person mentioned that using reflection at the end of each session changed the tone and flow of the rest of the day as students left for home on the afterschool bus (which can be a chaotic time.) It was as simple as asking one youth to go on the loudspeaker and mention that it was time to clean up the rooms and “huddle-up” which was the school’s signal that all classes reflect in whatever ways were meaningful to them. Youth had a voice in talking about what worked for them that day, the adult listened and adjusted future sessions and the climate in the building changed dramatically. Sharing this tool provided other staff with an easy “win” and opened the door to further discussions on quality.

  13. Mark,
    For me habits also can be a slippery slope, no matter how good our intentions might be. Habits can cause us to be on auto pilot (i.e., we have stopped thinking about whatever it is we do). This goes for our work in programs, and also our regular route that takes us to work. How many of us have missed large parts of our drive because it is a habit? Scary.
    I agree that reflection is a great habit to foster inside our regular work with youth. And I would add – that we have to be mindful of it, be in the moment of it and not reflect on auto pilot. Maybe the reflection we planned does not fit with where the group just went and we need to revise it?
    I think using the YPQA indicators as our toolbox of basic practices is wise, but we also need to constantly ask and answer “what I am doing with youth right now --- and why?”

  14. Abby brings up an excellent point: an absence of complaints or obvious problems does not mean we should neglect reflection on our habits and routines. This blog is an important reminder to practitioners, program developers, evaluators and researchers alike to seek out tools like the YPQA to assess and seek to improve the quality of programs.

  15. Abby,
    Habits change is frequently tied to major changes or crisis. I believe that a new positions would allow many of us the freedom to change our leadership and teaching habits.
    What have you done to work 'leaner'?
    In the change from one role to another did you struggle with any habit changes or additions?

  16. Joshua,
    I like how you phrase it..."speaking the language of quality programming". I wonder what actions should be those core brushing your teeth. For me I believe it is creating time for stating clearly the purpose of the activity (why we are doing it), making sure the experience is very interactive and creating time for reflection of what we learned doing the activity.
    I hope that those three elements are a habits that I "have to do" before the program is done.
    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Thanks so much for engaging in this topic! It seems like many of us can see how this is relevant in our work!
    I have a quick question to ask of you.....Has anyone encountered a situation where there was resistance to changing or stopping a bad habit?

  18. Colleen,
    I love how the group created a trigger for the habit! "Huddle-up" seems like it would be an effective way to transition the group, and their energy, into a period of reflection.
    Good job on creating a new trigger, routine and reward!

  19. Deborah,
    Thanks for disagreeing with the post! I agree that habits can be a slippery slope. Our best intentions can result in poor performance if we are not thoughtful and intentional in our work.

  20. I am writing from the perspective of a Community Ed. Director. The thought of getting feedback is a wonderful way to encourage change and garner feedback from an outside source. Community Educators use our Citizen Advisory Council as a wonderful sounding board to give full and honest feedback about our programs. These folks are from all walks of life and have varied backgrounds so discussion is often lively and well rounded. They are not afraid to tell me if something is “just not right” or could use some tweaking. They also are my biggest cheerleaders and support system when something is going well. Sometimes we shake things up and add new members to keep it fresh and ideas flowing. We have, admittedly, at times gotten stuck into “bad habits” or just keep doing things because we have done it that way for years. We could sit around all day and talk about how it has worked for us in the past but this group critically looks at that and breaks it down to the basics of why we do it, is it still serving our purpose or is there a new or better way to reach the same goal? Having Advisory Council is one of the best ways I can think of to get that kick you need to get out of the rut or bad habit mode. Sometimes when change is presented or suggested it is not always easy to move to make the change. It is always easy to stay the course and keep moving along with bad habits. Change takes time, energy and resources that are often in short supply. The benefit of an Advisory Council is immeasurable when it comes to helping to make that change. Sometimes it takes some good listening skills and thick skin to hear some tough discussion about how things are really going but in the end the Advisory Council comes out with a new habit (or way of doing things) for our program. Keeping good critical thinkers around us is a super way to make sure we don’t slip back into the bad habits just because it is familiar and comfortable to do things the way we always have.

  21. Great Blog!! As a new person we bring new perspective to our counties but it is so easy to get into an old habit with the "we've always done it this way." Great suggestions for keeping the program changing and ensuring you are not getting into a habit and always being willing to change rather than quit.

  22. My goodness, lots has come into the conversation since I proposed asking "divergent questions" to enhance the feedback we give from observations. An example of divergent questions as opposed to covergent questions would be: Instead of "Do the youth like it here" you could ask "What are some of your programs greatest strengths?" OR "What do the youth tell you they like about the program?". The point is to ask effective questions that lead to more questions and conversations with staff as you provide feedback about the program observation.

  23. Michelle,
    Thank you so much for contributing a strategy from Community Education.
    Advisory Board can be an excellent tool to gather feedback about your programs. I know that many directors look to find representatives for the committee that are connected each of the offerings of their district program.
    I love your statement that we need "good critical thinkers around us make sure we don’t slip back into the bad habits ".
    Identifying and building a relationship with one of those critical thinkers can be difficult and it is something I highly recommend!

  24. Katie,
    I love your insight as a new person in an organization. It can be easy to fall into another persons bad habits. Frequently staffing changes allow you the opportunity to make some positive changes. I encourage you to focus on one or two small items at a time...remember that long term success is a long term commitment.

  25. Margo,
    I like the questions you highlighted. I believe it can also be helpful to dig a bit deeper into another's comments. I like to ask "Can you tell me more about that?" when I feel someone is on the verge of saying something profound.

  26. As we all know, habits can be good and bad. After some time in a position and once you start to understand your role, it can be easy to fall into habits. Some good, some not so good. About a year ago with had a vision committee (simplified Got Viva process) that Mark helped facilitate that looked at our program and developed goals for the year. This was a very positive experience and has helped us move forward on some new things and see the work that we do from a different perspective. This process also created clear goals and steps to accomplish them, which made writing my PPOW really easy and helped create some new good habits for both our county program and our clubs. I would agree about observations. I think that they are beneficial for both the person being observed and the person observing as they help both parties seeing things different and help us point out habits we may have that could be improved on. Thanks Mark for sharing a very valid perspective and topic!

  27. Darcy,
    Thank you for your very open comments. I'm happy that I was able to help with the development of some goals for the program you lead.
    Creating time for program-wide reflection can also help address organizational habits/routines. When working with a larger group of people a higher level of intentionality must be used to assure that there is an agreement on the habits/routines that need to be changed. If there isn't agreement on the need for a change the internal fight that many of us experience when changing a habit can manifest in the relationships of those that lead a program.
    Thanks for your insight!

  28. Habits have power to improve programs if we understand how they work. Identify habits holding you back and tweak them. Here's how:

    Focus small - just one or two habits at first. Tiny changes can have big impact. Build on helpful habits you already have. Ask your community - learners, parents, stakeholders - for feedback observations. Formal assessment tools like the Youth Program Quality Assessment can spotlight areas needing improvement too.


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